The movie “The Green Book”* has introduced many Americans to the history of “The Negro Motorist Green Book” for the first time. First published in 1936, this Jim Crow era survival guide was the work of New York City mailman Victor Hugo Green. It was compiled for African-Americans who, whenever possible, were buying cars in order to avoid the pervasive racism and segregation of public transportation.
Still, black motorists faced hardships such as white-owned businesses refusing to serve them or repair their vehicles, and being refused accommodation or food by white-owned hotels. Obviously Rhode Island was no exception.
Two years ago, architectural historian Catherine W. Zipf wrote about Rhode Island’s place in The Green Book for the Providence Journal, “A haven for African-Americans in R.I.” (Seen in the accompanying image is 58 Meeting Street between Benefit and Congdon Streets.)
As the Green Book’s popularity grew, more businesses came forth to advertise their services. The Green Book reveals a community that already existed.
58 Meeting St. was part of this community. According to the 1940 U.S. federal census, it was owned by Martha A. Greene, a 60-year-old “Negro” widow. Greene advertised her house as a Tourist Home in the 1940 volume of the Green Book. She ran the business with her daughter, 17-year-old Martha E. Greene, who worked as a maid.
CBS Sunday Morning ran a segment today: “The Real Green Book.”
As times changed, so did “The Green Book.” For sale by subscription and at Esso gas stations, in its heyday it sold two million copies a year. But in the 1948 edition, Victor Green wrote: “There will be a day sometime in the near future when this guide will not have to be published. This is when we as a race will have equal opportunities and privileges in the United States.”
Green, who died in 1960, didn’t live to see that day come, when the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964 mandating the end of segregation. Publication of “The Green Book” ceased in 1967. It was largely forgotten, its true legacy underestimated.
Below is the site of the former Hill Top Inn, identified by Zipf as a Green Book hotel at 72 Meeting Street. The other hotel mentioned, The Bertha, at 54 Meeting Street, is no longer there. Dr. Zipf has lectured on the topic at the R.I. Historical Society.
*The movie won three Golden Globes. Rhode Island native Peter Farrelly won the award for best musical or comedy feature.